Rising from the Ashes

By: Fiona Purcell

Rising from the Ashes chronicles Fiona Purcell's experiences with recovery. She strives to de-stigmatize addiction by describing her journey as honestly as she knows how in hopes that she can bring about some level of understanding and acceptance.

Freeing The Black Dragon

Apr 10, 2016


I recently posted a story for my kids about my quest to find happiness and recovery. I spoke of the dragons that haunt me. The red dragon represents my addiction, and the black dragon represents my past. I spoke of freeing the black dragon. I know that unchaining my past is essential to healing my spirit, but I did not have the first idea how I would go about doing so. Slowly, it came to me that I needed to speak about it, however uncomfortable it may make others in my life. It is a secret I choose to no longer carry.

When I was in rehab, I met a priest. I grew up in a Muslim country in a family that practiced no religion. I haven't really come across many priests in my life, and honestly, I had many preconceived notions that weren't necessarily positive. This priest was different. He was an Army chaplain during the Vietnam War, and he is in recovery. He suffers no fools and swears like the Army man he is. He is in his 80s but knows exactly what is going on with the generations below him. He embraces his gay congregants, champions birth control and is so full of gruff love that I wish I could introduce him to the world. He said many wise things while I was in rehab, but one that resonates deeply with me is, "A joy shared is a joy doubled, but a pain shared is a pain halved." So I am writing and posting this to allow you all to cleave from me the pain I have carried far too long.

My childhood was rife with secrets and pain. My father, a sweet man whose intentions were good, was an alcoholic whose love of my mother and brother blinded him from doing what was necessary. My mother is and was mentally ill. Her erratic behavior was allowed to fester unchecked all my life. My older brother, born without his left hand, sick of heart and soul, molested me consistently for years.

My parents were born in England, moved to the states, became citizens and then moved to Saudi Arabia. Among their siblings, they were the most successful, and appearances to my mother were everything. In public, we behaved like the perfect family. We got good grades, and we did not air our dirty laundry in public. But behind closed doors, it was a nightmare of numbing proportions.

We traveled extensively throughout my youth, and I did the best I could by sneaking out of the hotel rooms I was forced to share with my brother and sleeping in hotel corridors. I threw myself into activities at school so that I could spend as little time as possible at home. I gloried first in my brother's departure for boarding school and then again when I went myself. It was the first time I truly felt safe. Later, when I was 17, my mother got it into her head that she didn't like how I was turning out and threatened to move me to another school. In utter desperation, I finally told her what my brother had been doing for years. But things didn’t get better. As often happens with victims of molestation and incest who speak out, I was treated like the pariah who had rocked the boat and ruined the family. I’ll never forget what my mother said: “Well, it isn't like he ever hit you."

I rarely spoke of this but to a handful of friends and, of course, to Frank. I told them on the condition that they do nothing with the information. I was out of the house at this point and no longer in danger physically. I was deeply afraid of the consequences of speaking out. I was afraid I would lose my family, who, in reality, had abandoned me from the start. I was co-dependently loyal, afraid that this would hurt them, especially my father. Perhaps I can do this now because he has been gone for several years. I was also afraid that others would see me as tainted, damaged goods, unworthy.

I recently overheard another recovering alcoholic on the phone with a friend. She was asking her friend to act as a buffer when she went to dinner with her family because they were bringing with them a relative who had molested her when she was growing up. I thought to myself, "That is insane. Why would you agree to share a meal with someone who molested you?" It hit me a moment later, like a thundering waterfall in my head, that I had been doing things like that for years. I put my brother in my wedding and forced my husband to bear it stoically. How sick is that?

I am not writing this because I want pity. In fact, that would probably piss me off. I am not writing this because I want to inflict pain on my mother and my brother. I truly wish them no ill. My mother, I found out later in life, was molested by her own brother, and she did not have the resources or the compulsion to seek the help I have. I am simply tired of carrying this burden on my shoulders and choose to put it down now. I guess this is what breaking the cycle looks like. I don't have to hide from this anymore. When my children are older, I can speak to them about this openly and without shame.

I am exhausted now. Breaking chains is hard work. Thank you for halving my pain.

The Queen Who Saved Herself

Mar 28, 2016
Hello, my name is Fiona, and I am an alcoholic. There are many things that I struggle with not only being an alcoholic but also with just being human. Recently, my husband and I have wrestled with what to tell our beautiful children about my recovery that has twice separated me from them when I have been in rehab and now that I am in a recovery house. They don't understand why I cannot come home yet, and they keep telling me that I don't look sick. This is a story that I came up with to try and illustrate where I am and why.

There was a girl who grew up in a dark place but survived the days of her childhood and came out into the world. She met a prince who she thought was amazing. She spent many years getting to know him ,and he spent a lot of time and energy showing her things and came to be very protective of her. She felt safe with him, and they fell in love.  

The girl thought that being in love would solve all her problems and set her free from her dark, sad past. The two eventually married, and he became a king, and she became a queen. They had a young prince who was an angel. The angel baby opened their hearts and showed the queen that she was good inside. The little prince died in the queen's arms, and the king and queen's hearts were broken. At around the same time, the king became deathly ill, and they feared that he would die. The king was very brave and fought his disease till he was well again, but they were unsure they would ever be able to have more children.
Eventually, a miracle happened, and they had another prince who was the healer of broken hearts and brought joy into their lives once again. Soon after, another miracle happened, and they had a little princess whose presence was like a song to their souls.
The king, queen, prince and princess lived in several castles in several cities, moving each time the queen became sad and restless. Even though she was surrounded by love, having all she ever wanted or needed, the queen was unable to stay happy. The king tried everything to make his lady happy, but he was beside himself.
What was happening to the queen was that she was haunted by dragons. There was a dark, black dragon from her past that saddened her. There was also a bright red dragon that spoke terrible things to her. The black dragon was always there chained to her, hovering, making her feel she wasn't as good of a person as she really was. The red dragon came and went, but its voice was very loud. It told her it would fix all her problems, push away the black dragon and make her feel good. But the red dragon lied and made her do things she would never normally do. It would make her act differently and lead her to make bad decisions.
The king was scared, and the prince and princess were sad. No one knew what was wrong with the queen. She had her king, her prince, her princess and her castle. She had the king's family, ladies in waiting and love surrounding her from all sides. What could possibly be wrong? 
It turned out that the dragons were invisible to everyone but the queen. She was afraid and told the king about the dragons. He valiantly picked up a sword and tried to fight the dragons for her, but he could not see them to slay them.
The queen eventually was forced to rest in a peaceful valley, but the dragons followed her. She came to realize that no one but her could slay the dragons because she was the only one who could see them. She was distraught. How would she manage to slay these dragons? She had never held a sword, and she didn't know if she was brave enough.
In the peaceful valley, the spirit of the sky spoke to her and told her, “Listen to me and not the red dragon. I will guide you on a quest to rid yourself of the dragons and show you the road to happiness.” The spirit showed her to a trail and gave her a map with 12 destinations. She would have to make her way along the road, reaching each destination in turn along the way. The spirit told her to seek help from other queens who had already taken the same quest, but the spirit said it would always be there for her if she was in need.
The queen was so afraid, but she thought of how sad she was inside and knew that she needed to muster up the strength to go forth. She also thought of her brave king and of the young prince and princess and knew she could not return to them until she had rid herself of the dragons.
The quest was long and arduous, but with the help she had been given along the way, she made it to the 12th destination where she took up her sword and managed to maim the red dragon and set the black dragon free.
The black dragon can still be seen, but he is farther away and can't hurt the queen any longer. The red dragon is wounded and will stay away as long as the queen remembers not to listen to him and his lies. The queen, king, prince and princess can be happy again, and the queen knows how to fight her own battles. She thanked the spirit in the sky for the answer, but the spirit told her that the answer was inside her all the time — the spirit had just shown her how to find it.

Lessons From Liam

Feb 15, 2016

The name Liam means "overall protector," and it seemed like a fitting name for my first-born child. It wasn't what we planned to call him, but it suited him beautifully.

I recently wrote about Dermot and Wren, and Frank pointed out that I had asked you to allow me to describe my children, but that I had not written about Liam. I understood his concern. I had always intended to write about Liam, but he is and always will be in a slightly different category than our living children.

Frank, I think, is worried that Liam will be forgotten, and I worry the same thing from time to time. I don't worry that Frank and I will forget him, but not speaking of him makes him fade faster than we would like—it also feels like utter betrayal on our part as parents.

I had heartburn in February 2003. I never get heartburn. The weekend forecast promised to snow us in, so I bought a pregnancy test on the way home and made a mental note to use it in the morning. We had been trying to get pregnant for more a year but had decided to put it on the back burner. When I woke the next snowy morning and took the test, I watched it turn positive and yelled for Frank to come and see what I had in my hand. He had not known what I was doing and came into the bathroom to find me naked and on the toilet (I am nothing if not classy) as I stumbled excitedly over the words. He went weak and weepy and spent the rest of the weekend making me tea (of which I am no great fan) and casting furtive awe-filled glances in my direction. And thus the adventure into parenthood began.

I was excited to be sure, but I was also utterly terrified. Ironically, I was not worried that the pregnancy would not go well or that there would be anything wrong with the baby. I wasn’t even much worried about the actual birth. What struck me numb with terror was the idea of what I would be like as a mother. Would I be a good one? Would I be capable of loving and caring for this little stranger? Would I be patient enough, strong enough, selfless enough?
My own mother was not the best role model. I don't say this to be mean or salacious but only to tell you this because it is true. I won't go into details as to why, but suffice it to say that my mother is a sick woman and has been all my life. I don't harbor as much anger toward her as I used to, and I am working on releasing the rest.

Liam's entry into the world was not what we had expected, and the panic and adrenaline enshrouding that event are to be written on another day when I am more ready than I am today. He had a heart and lung condition that we had not known about and was whisked away to the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia (CHOP). Because I had had an emergency C-section at another hospital, I was unable to see more of him than his little blue toes on the day of his birth. I was able to make it to CHOP within 36 hours, mostly because time was of the essence but also because something happens after you give birth. 

Something happens to the mother and to the father. Your concern for yourself rapidly melts away, and your only focus becomes this small bundle of vulnerability. It is an animal instinct. I can safely say this for both Frank and myself because at the same time Frank was undergoing chemo for Hodgkin’s lymphoma at yet another hospital and would walk back and forth from those grueling treatment sessions and an even more grueling bone marrow biopsy to see his son. Frank and I became superhuman for the few short weeks of Liam's life. In my opinion, Frank has remained superhuman since.

When I was wheeled into the four-pod cardiac intensive care unit (CICU) room where they had Liam, I was still unsure of my abilities. When Frank pointed out Liam to me, I did not see the tree of monitors, the many wires snaking from his tiny body, the blue hue of his skin, the bandages, nor did I hear the constant beeping and whirring of life sustaining machines. I saw beauty and love. I saw a miracle. In an instant, my heart grew and evolved, and there were things I just knew to do.

There were a great many things we would be taught over the next few weeks about how to care for Liam. We learned to insert a nasogastric tube through his nose and into his stomach so we could feed and medicate him. We learned to work his oxygen machine, and we learned to handle the Flolan monitor and Broviac line pack that would deliver life-saving medicine at nanograms per second. But before we learned those things, I knew to touch him, though he was too weak for us to hold. I knew to talk to him. I knew to sing to him. I knew to assuage as much of his pain as I could by these simple acts. I knew how to be a mother, and a I knew how to be a good one.

On one of these days at the CICU, we were sitting by Liam's bedside, and his vital signs began to dip. The nurse on the unit was concerned enough get the doctor. In those moments, there is nothing for parents to do but be at their child's side. Frank said to me, "Sing to him, Fi." So I did. I sang "The Christmas Song" even though it was October, but it just seemed to make sense to me at the time (I was not necessarily thinking so clearly during those days.) 

As I sang and held his tiny hand, he opened his beautiful eyes and searched the space in front of them. He seemed to focus, and his vital signs began to climb to normal rates, stabilizing by the time the doctor arrived. "What happened?" asked the nurse incredulously. Frank lifted his tear-streaked face and said, "She sang to him."

Liam lived nine and a half weeks. He was gorgeous. No really, and not just in spirit. He was perfectly proportionate with a beautifully round head of wispy blond hair and piercing, searching blue eyes. He looked just like his father, and later, when Wren was born, she was the feminine version of his grace and strength. The gift of their similarity is that as she grows we will get to see a bit of what Liam would have looked like at various ages. He had laughably large hands, and we joked with the nurses that they looked like they belonged to an Irish bartender. He was patient with us and with his circumstances and truly only cried when it was too much. He would even warn us by scrunching up his face sadly and giving a little "hawah" shortly before the crying got real.

He also had a magical quality of allowing people who were generally nervous around babies, to hold him with confidence. I saw many male friends and family members who were intimidated by babies sit for hours holding him and melting into his calmness. They would look at me with awe and say, "He makes this easy." I will never forget how my father-in-law, normally reticent around babies, would sit contentedly with his meat-hook hands surrounding this sleeping bundle. My own father found holding Liam irresistible. Watching them together was so sweet.

There is so much more I could write about Liam, but I will save some for another day. I will end with the fact that Liam taught me many lessons. He gave me my first glimpse of unconditional love. He showed me that I am capable of being a good mother. He showed me that miracles exist and so do superheroes. He showed me that some things just are and need no explanation. He remains our "overall protector" to this day.

Life is Like a Waterfall

Nov 04, 2015

My daughter Wren is a watcher. She always has been and always will be. At seven, her innate intelligence is staggering. She took a while to speak, but when she did it came out in strings of words with emphasis and accuracy. She didn't say much but when she did you could not help but listen. 

At one point about 18 months ago, we were living with my in-laws while we sold our house in Annapolis and looked for one in the Philadelphia area. Wren and her brother Dermot were sharing a room with two sets of bunk beds and both sleeping in little nests on both bottom bunks. I was settling them down for the night and had read them stories and giggled with Dermot about some fart joke or another (I have always and will always find farts hysterical). They were a bit restless and I laid down on the carpet between the two beds and quieted them several times in the darkness.  Dermot drifted off and then a small voice from Wren's side of the room said, "Mama?"

"Yes Wren?"

"I've been thinking." 

Uh oh, I thought to myself, brace yourself Fiona.

"What about Wren?"

"Well... Life is like a waterfall."

"What do you mean chicken?"

"Well, you are born at the top of the waterfall. Then when the water falls, that is your life.  And when you hit the bottom, it's over and you die."

"Wow, Wren, that's really cool but kind of scary also."

"Not really... waterfalls are beautiful. Good night Mama."

At this she turned over and fell asleep quickly and peacefully... I on the other hand lay on the floor for half and hour longer in complete existential angst. She could not have been more right. To her it was all about perspective. You could view waterfalls as scary, which they can be, or you can view them as beautiful, which they are. Life can sometimes be scary, but you can choose to view it as beautiful, which it is. This from the mouth of a five and half year old.

Children are miracles, tiny people who ought to be listened to much more than they often are. They see the world in a way that we jaded adults have forgotten.



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All the Crayons in the Box

Jul 22, 2015

A few years ago now I was working on a "mom" project for Valentine's Day. As parents know, food allergies have put an end to the days of bringing cupcakes and candy to class for such holidays or birthdays. We now have to come up with non-edible treats for these celebrations.  I was sitting down with all the kids' old crayons, removing the wrappers and sorting them by color. I would then be putting them in a heart shaped candy mold and melting them into heart shaped crayons that my kids could then give to others on Valentine's Day.

My friend stopped by, and was intrigued by what I was doing. She sat down to help me peel the wrappers off and sort the broken pieces. As we chatted and went along, I noticed that she was either ignoring the dark colors like, black, brown or grey or making a move to throw them out. I asked her what she was doing and she cheerily said, "Well, you don't want to make heart crayons out of these ugly colors do you?" I assured her that I did, as I wanted the kids to be able to color with the full range of hues. We actually argued about this for a while and it became obvious to me that we had a fundamental difference in outlook.

My friend is a sweet lady. She is intelligent, funny and bubbly. She is accepting, patient, kind and creative in ways I still can't grasp.  She is a ninja at free-hand heart and butterfly cut outs, a varsity player in the "mom" project arena to be sure. For all her good qualities, she does not see herself deserving of the happiness that I would bestow upon her if I could. One of her flaws is that she is a perpetual and forced optimist. She wills herself to see good where perhaps there isn't. She wears rose-colored glasses and would rather not talk about things unpleasant or unseemly. All things considered not such bad flaws, but flaws nonetheless.

Herein lies our fundamental difference in outlook. My friend only wants to paint pictures with pretty colors. She wants her life to look a certain way. She doesn't want to use the ugly colors. While I'm not a gloomy person and certainly an optimist, I see that the world has dark lines among the pretty shapes and they are what give the picture depth and perspective. I don't see how you can paint a realistic picture without shadows. I think the shadows are there to remind us how far we have come, how beautiful the other colors are in contrast and how deep and meaningful our life is. I prefer to use all the crayons in the box.



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Loving Fiona

Jun 18, 2015


Like most addicts and honestly many others, I am my own harshest critic.  The internal monologue that I engage in is abhorrent.  The things I tell myself are awful.   For the first 41 years of my life I have essentially hated myself.

It has been proven over and over again that there are many people that love me, like me, even dare I say admire me (the last one makes me cringe with discomfort).  What do they see that I don't?  Since embarking on recovery I have struggled to see myself through the eyes of these people. I am slowly, very slowly, beginning to see parts of myself that are good, admirable, desirable - even worthy.

When in rehab this last time, I met with the spiritual advisor for my unit.  The first rehab I went to went through all the science of addiction and being a good student always, I had no trouble grasping the facts and being able to spout them back to anyone who would listen.  This second rehab did the same, but added the layer of spirituality that I now see as essential to recovery of any kind.  The chaplain sat me down in her office and had me write on her white board all the things I tell myself.  The list was long and dripped with self-hatred and ugliness.  She then took a picture of a little girl about four years of age and had me hold it.  She made me tell this picture all the things I had written on the board.  I wept as I spouted this tortuous list at this innocent child.  I mean wept in a way that people generally don't and many of the words I had to force myself to choke out.

From that day to this I have begun to be kinder to myself.  It does not mean that I let myself off the hook for all the things I have done in addiction and out that require admittance and redemption, but I have started to see myself as a human being stumbling through this life, doing the best I can.  I have begun to realize that I am enough.  Not remarkable, or spectacular, but simply enough.  This also does not mean that I will not strive for greater things, but that today I am enough.

Living with an alcoholic or an addict is awful, confusing and scary to say the least.  We do things in addiction that people shouldn't.  We do things in addiction that people in their right mind do not.  We do things in addiction that go against the core of our being.  Very little gets between us and our next fix.  I describe it as an out-of-body experience.  I know that what I am about to do is wrong, is bad, should not be done, but the side of me that knows this is so much quieter than the addiction.  The addiction sends me into auto-pilot and I am powerless in the face of its loudness and insistence.

I am realizing that in order to ask forgiveness from these people that I love, I must first forgive myself.  If I don't forgive myself, then I won't be able to stand in the face of their justifiable anger and resentment.  Somehow when I am alright with myself, the force of their feelings, while still felt, does not make my knees buckle.  I can still be standing and still be enough.  If I don't master this form of forgiveness then I am destined to repeat the insanity of my past.

So for today, I am working on loving Fiona in the way that I crave others will and do.  For today I am enough.


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Finding Joe

Jun 02, 2015

I have been in and and around a certain 12 step program for a while now.  I remember distinctly my first meeting and shakily sobbed out who I was and that I was an alcoholic.  It was the first time I had said it out loud and the sound was shocking and I remember being very grateful for the other people in the room.  I could feel that they understood and did not judge.  I could feel them sending positive energy my way and it felt good... Until they started to talk about God. 

As soon as God was mentioned, part of me shut down.  I was desperate, but I wasn't that desperate.  I wasn't going to listen to bible thumping. Well, I would listen but I would disregard politely. 

I came out of rehab for the first time and went home, I came home hanging my head low and trying to fly under my family's radar.  I was sorry, I was sad, I was angry, I was confused and I hated conflict.  I went to IOP, I went to group therapy, I went to individual therapy, I went to marriage counseling and my husband had his own therapist.  We both had an appropriate 12-step program.  I got a sponsor; I started working the steps.  I did service for my home group, I chaired meetings, I went on a 12-step call.  I went back to school and after a year had the coursework done to become a certified addictions counselor (I got a 4.0). 

Then I promptly relapsed.

I went back to rehab, this time to a special relapse unit where we would sit around in a circle and collectively hang our heads and say a downtrodden, "Oh, fuck."  This rehab was a little different.  They told us the facts about our brains and our brains on drugs, but they also talked about our spirit.  I don't know when it happened, but slowly, with loving firmness, they managed to pry open my mind.  They talked about God, in general terms and I started to want to hear more. 

I never grew up religious in any way.  We went to Sunday School but it was more of a "everybody does it" kind of thing for my parents rather than something that they believed in and wanted to instill.  At some point we were given the choice to sleep in and that was that.

There was an arrogance about my dealings with religion.  I thought people that believed in God were simple, blind in their belief in something that you can't see and touch. Religion has been interpreted in so many ways and often not in the ways of good.  So I dismissed it out right, because I knew more. I was more advanced.

Years later, and now in a more humbled position in life, I am less arrogant.  I am much more open.  I am just as confused though.  For instance, I have experienced love, I can feel it but I can't touch it or hold it (unless it is in the form of my children and husband).  You can't easily define it or put it in a box and it means different things to different people, but it definitely exists. 

Now I look at people who ta;l about God and most of them are happy.  I don't mean happy in a giddy, silly sense, but in a profoundly calm and serene sense.  So what if I am wrong?  What if there is something to this?

I have gotten to this phase where I can say I think that there is a possibility that there is some form of divine, some creative intelligence, some universal connectedness. But what is that called? God seems a very arbitrary name, someone else's conception that I can't quite put my arms around and embrace.  I feel silly praying, I feel inadequate talking to God. I went back and forth about that for many months until it occurred to me to ask myself a series of "what if" questions. 

What if my concept of God could be more approachable?  What if I were able to have a conversation with God?  What would it take for me to not feel silly?  Who would tell me what I needed to hear that I could both respect and enjoy?  What sort of being would set me at ease but be "no bull-shit"?

Slowly my mind went to a dusty, deserted highway somewhere in the sky.  There is a neon flashing sign that says, "Eat at Joe's" over the top of mid-sized 50's diner.  The sign hums and flickers and the "J" flashes on and off so sometimes it says, "Eat at  oe's".  You can go inside and there are a few regulars there eating their "shit on a shingle" and "eggs sunny side up".  Joe is behind the counter wiping the surface down with a somewhat white rag.

Joe is a burly man in his mid 60's.  He has salt and pepper wavy hair worn short.  He is balding on top but he covers his pate with a white chef's cap.  He has two visible tattoos.  On his right arm is a green and blue and red tattoo that says "I love Bernice" with a heart representing the word love.  On his left arm in black are the words, "Keep it Simple Stupid".  

He knows me by name and offers me coffee and a smile.  I sit at the breakfast bar and check the menu even though I will always order scrambled eggs and corned beef hash.  Joe knows this, but allows me this eccentricity and waits for me to tell him "the usual".  He turns around and starts to cook me breakfast and asks me how things are.  I tell him what I am struggling with and I ask him what I should do.  He looks at me from under his bushy eyebrows as he places my plate in front of me and says, "really Fiona?"  He speaks with a Jersey accent for some reason.  "This is the kind of question that, ya know, if you have to ask, you probably already know the answer."

This is my concept of God –  a burly short order cook from Jersey named Joe who reminds me that problems are actually pretty simple, life is pretty simple, and I already know most of the answers.  I just have to get out of my own way and let my good shine through.

Joe bless you all.


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